Automation in QSR: A Multichannel Approach

Josh Knapp, iRetail key account manager of Advantech

Quick serve restaurants (QSR) are the cornerstone of the restaurant industry and this segment is still positioned for growth in the coming years. However, brands that wish to survive and grow in this oversaturated market need to stay ahead of their competition by continuously improving daily operational processes, reducing turn time and increasing customer service. As QSR restaurants are built on the concept of speed in delivery, the savviest brands are improving processes and the customer experience through automation. However, recently, for both QSR and retail in general, the focus on being competitive through “customer experience” has led to the birth of a new type of automation in QSR, and the result is a multichannel approach to servicing customers.

As the behavior of consumers continues to evolve, QSR brands are tasked with becoming more adaptive to better serve a smarter, more tech-driven client base. Multichannel strategies meet customer expectations by relying heavily on IoT solutions – including connected and smart technology to deploy systems like self-order terminals, interactive menu boards, drive-thru automated kiosks and self-serve locker delivery systems for an integrated, immersive customer experience.

Previously, a QSR restaurant’s bottom line wasn’t necessarily influenced on the technological advancements made by the brand. However, in today’s QSR market, whether we look at customer engagement or customer experience, convenience is key. With ordering, successful QSR brands have all their bases covered with traditional solutions, as well as new, innovative technology—including in-store, drive thru, self-order kiosk, online, mobile app, advanced order and more. How customers receive their food is going multichannel as well, with table-side service, advanced order parking spots, where food is hand-delivered to your car, and even food delivery service to your front door. The hyper engagement and customer service that QSRs are supplying to guests is the epitome of multichannel strategy. As an added benefit, the automation of routine tasks, like taking a customer’s order, opens new channels of sales and marketing that weren’t possible a few years ago.

Frictionless retail is another concept that has made its way into the industry’s jargon. The original idea was to simplify and make processes more efficient and seamless. This has now morphed into the concept of frictionless retail, by removing all barriers to purchase. Within the framework of automation and multichannel approach, an example of frictionless retail can be highlighted through payment transactions, which have gone from cash, to credit, to contactless. Additionally, mobile pay, mobile wallets and electronic gift cards allow consumers the ability to go wallet-less, by consolidating payment methods all onto a mobile device.

QSR’s are already moving beyond mobile apps for simple tasks like ordering and payment processing. Brands are upping their game by utilizing data provided from user-registered loyalty and rewards accounts. The data collection of this specific group of customers, helps brands better analyze consumer behavior and track account balances to provide more meaningful suggestive purchases – “try your vanilla latte with goat milk on your next visit.” The drive to retain customer loyalty, while simultaneously improving processes, is what’s leading the digital transformation of QSR restaurants.

Gen Z, or the next generation of buyers and decision-makers, have grown up with technology at their fingertips. Therefore, brands can no longer rely on traditional print or shotgun-blast strategies. They need laser-focused approaches that integrate mobile devices and social media into the customer journey. The adoption of these technologies will ensure QSR brands are able to maintain a competitive edge and provide customers an experience that is solely focused on their wants and needs.

Automation in ordering is also being implemented in QSR drive-thrus via interactive kiosks or mobile apps. These streamline the ordering process, by removing the need for customers to wait for and interact with an available attendant. Through touch-screen kiosks in drive-thrus, customers can ensure their order customizations are exactly to their liking. Recently, Sonic announced it is testing voice-activated self-order stations, which should improve speed of service and order accuracy, while also freeing up workers to provide improved hospitality.

Some brands are far ahead of the game, having already eliminated the need for customers to interact with employees any time throughout their shopping or dining experience. For example, Wow Bao, a Chicago-based Asian fast-casual restaurant, has taken automation to new levels. The restaurant is fully automated, meaning customers can order cashless at a kiosk or via the restaurant’s app and then have their food prepared and placed in a numbered box that corresponds to their receipt. Throughout this entire experience – ordering, paying, picking up their food – the customer has no interaction with an employee. Fully automated restaurants like Wow Bao go beyond simplifying the customer ordering process; they ensure that the service is consistent, as well as convenient.

Modern data collection capabilities allow QSR brands to personalize the customer experience both inside and outside the store. For instance, digital menu boards that use predictive analytics can automatically self-update, based on current weather, location, season, etc. If you’re going through a drive-thru in Hawaii on an unusually cold or rainy day, the automated menu boards may provide more hot drinks or coffee options than normal; or menu panels can instantly switch from breakfast to lunch suggestion at the correct time of day, eliminating the need for customers to ask what’s available.
Regardless of whether its strategy is based off demand or desire, the QSR market continues to be one of the most innovative segments in the retail industry. In true form, they fully embrace the multichannel approach through automation and application. In some ways, QSRs have always known to encourage and nurture customers to “be your way” and for a person with a vested interest in the industry, “I’m lovin’ it.”

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